Interview: Megan Park, director of SXSW winner ‘The Fallout’ on the tricky line of exploring trauma without exploitation
In a March wracked by mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, it’s grotesquely fitting that writer-director Megan Park’s debut feature, The Fallout, greeted audiences at SXSW last week, earning the grand jury prize for narrative feature.
Charting the days and weeks after a school shooting, The Fallout chooses to elide lurid details of the shooting itself (we never see the incident up close, nor learn of the culprit or his motivations) in favor of keeping a tight eye on one student reeling from the unseen trauma that comes in its wake.
That student, a headstrong young girl named Vada (played with incredible nuance and deep layers by Jenna Ortega), finds herself vacillating between confusion and guilt in the wake of such tragedy.
Vada feels rudderless, unmoored; she can’t quite open up to her mother (a harried Julie Bowen) or her school-appointed therapist (a probing Shailene Woodley). Some of her friends (including Will Ropp’s Nick) are pushed to national action, but all she can do is skip school and connect with two kids with whom she hid in a bathroom stall that fateful day: Mia (Sia muse Maddie Ziegler) and Quinton (Niles Fitch), also dealing with the tragedy in their own ways.
SXSW Review: ‘The Fallout’ explores teenage grief with a gentle hand
The results are stunningly restrained, emphasizing the black hole that America’s gun violence epidemic can tear in the lives of even our brightest, most vibrant young souls. The day of The Fallout’s wins for Narrative Feature Competition and the Brightcove Illumination Award at SXSW, AwardsWatch sat down with Park to talk about how she greets the warm reception of her debut feature, finding the awkward truths from such young actors, and the way her film resonates in a world rocked by the dual plagues of COVID and mass shootings.
Clint Worthington: How does it feel to have won both the Narrative Feature Competition prize and the Brightcove Illumination Award at SXSW?
Megan Park: It’s surreal, I still can’t believe it’s actually happened! I’m just so grateful.
Absolutely. Well, I wanted to ask you about the impetus behind making a film about the aftermath of school shootings — was there a specific event that inspired you, or was it generally the rise of these events?
MP: It wasn’t one specific incident, but a general, personal frustration and sadness about this whole topic. But there was also a lot of fear, because I felt like, since I’d never been through this, or because I was Canadian, or all these different reasons, I wasn’t the right person to tell this story.
But at a certain point, I couldn’t stop thinking about what it would be like to be a high school student right now, and how I would respond to that daily fear. I felt like I hadn’t really seen this side of the story before. So I just thought, “I’m gonna do it.” I couldn’t not do it.
Obviously, I did a lot of research to make sure it all tracked; I spoke with people who’d been through it. It was very important to me that the film wasn’t triggering in any way for anyone who’d been through this. But I really wanted to get this voice out into the world.
When it came time to balance the honesty about these events with keeping the feelings of survivors in mind, what did you do to achieve that balance? For instance, the shooting itself comes at the beginning of the film, but it’s extremely abstracted.
MP: I didn’t ever want to glorify the shooter or be gory or graphic, but I did want it to be accurate. And obviously for it to be as terrifying as it is. So it was a matter of walking the line on everything, even the sound design. You don’t want it to be too overwhelming and scary, but it is overwhelming and scary. It was a tricky line to navigate for sure. It took a lot of work in post and editing to make sure it was the right combination of getting the message across without being too in your face.
What was the casting process like, especially for finding these incredible kids, especially Jenny Ortega?
MP: I really wanted to make sure these were actual teen actors, not thirtysomethings playing teenagers. That was very important to me.
Jenna came to me through the recommendation of a friend; we got together and had coffee, and talked for a long time about the script and the character. That was more important to me than seeing her read, you know, because I could tell that she understood the material. Obviously, I’m a huge fan of her work and knew she was an incredible actress.
Once we attached Jenna, we built the cast out from there; she had incredible chemistry with so many people. Each of our supporting cast, I remember knowing when they came through the door that they were the one. As soon as Lumi [Pollack, who plays Vada’s sister Amelia] walked in, for instance, she was the only person I even brought back to read with Jenna for that part. She just blew me away, and it was her first job ever, which is insane to me.
That casting process taught me a lot as an actor honestly, because I learned that so much of it is about just your essence as soon as you walk in the door. It’s not even about if you know the lines or not and all that bullshit.
Once you had this cast, what was it like directing them, especially as someone who comes from an acting background directing their first feature?
MP: Coming from the acting side first, I’m grateful that I’ve worked with lots of different actors who approach material from different ways. So I felt really comfortable figuring out what each actor’s method was and adjusting my directing to that.
I worked with each actor, first one on one over FaceTime (since it was COVID) and then together with their scene partners. We broke down the whole script ahead of time and got a feel for what their style was, how much space or direction they needed, because each person is different.
The scenes feel so naturalistic – was there an element of improvisation or did you stick with a more tightly-scripted approach?
MP: It was definitely a mix; even though a lot of the scenes feel like improv, they were scripted. I just wrote it to feel like real, weird, awkward conversations. But we did leave a lot of room for improv, which the kids were great at; I would let them go crazy. Jenna and Maddie would get pretty crazy when they were together anyway — they had such great chemistry and I would be like, “Let this shit roll.”
One example is the weed rolling scene, where they’re rolling a joint; Maddie’s character as scripted is supposed to be so good at it, and Maddie tried to learn beforehand, using oregano and different things and watching videos. But on the day, she was so nervous. The scene you see is actually their first take of doing it, and she was so bad at it!
I remember watching the monitor thinking, “This is so much better than her being good at this.” They’re getting excited about just touching weed, which is so funny that I ended up going with it. I told them, “Don’t even try to be good, just show me the actual shitty joint you’re holding and go with the flow.”
The same goes for the scene where Lumi’s doing TikToks; she would do TikToks all the time, and that wasn’t in the script. I asked her to send me videos of her favorites, and I got music approval for the one we used. I stuck her in the background of a scene with Jenna, and told her to do it. It’s a welcome bit of comedy.
Another reason the weed scene works so well is that it ties into Maddie’s character, and how Vada sees her as this older, more successful role model, even though she’s just playing as an adult. They both are, really.
One thing I appreciated about the film is that it’s about the kinds of kids who don’t become David Hogg figures. What happens to these other kids when something traumatic happens to them, and they’re too scared to go into activism or anything like that?
MP: That’s exactly how I would respond. I’m so unbelievably blown away by the Emma Gonzalezes and David Hoggs of the world, it’s so amazing and inspiring. And I would feel so guilty not doing that, but I don’t think I’d be able to. Even now, if something terrible happened to me, I don’t think I’d be able to go speak about it and change the world. The Fallout grew out of that, because I know that probably happens to these kids too.
And in an age of social media, even without the stress of horrific situations, you still have to perform your lives anyway at such a young age.
MP: I know. And I wonder sometimes about that pressure younger kids feel that’s so unique to their generation, to use social media platforms in a certain way and to respond to situations like these. I think they feel a lot of internal guilt if they don’t rise to the occasion; that feels uniquely Generation Z to me. I didn’t feel that pressure when I was a high school student, at least in that way.
Do you think, then, that this film tries to give a message to these kids that it’s okay to not have to feel like you have to change the world?
MP: I hope the message is that everybody heals and responds to things in different ways. And however you respond is okay. If you’re really struggling and can’t leave your room for six months, that’s okay. If you’re able to speak out and change the world, that’s definitely okay. Anywhere in between, that’s fine too.
There’s a line that got cut from the movie that was very much about Vada asking for help, because we felt like we didn’t need it. Ultimately, the message is that healing is a singular journey; it’s not linear. And asking for help is really, really important.
That’s something that Vada really struggles with, too, because she puts up all these performative walls, and even avoids the idea that anything really even happened to her.
MP: She didn’t lose anyone directly related to her. She didn’t directly face the violence but was still very much a part of it. It’s interesting to me that Quinton is the person who lost the most on paper, but is sort of the most together. That’s something I wanted to explore with her; if you don’t experience something directly, but you feel the aftereffects of it, or even feel like you’re struggling more, you’re like, “What the fuck is wrong with me? Am I weak?”
That scene Quinton has in the car with Vada, where he says no one asks him about his brother, is really poignant — that desire for people to even avoid acknowledging that something happened.
It’s a messy situation, especially when you’re 16 or 17. How do you talk to people about that? That’s why I love the texting conversations between Mia and Vada; they deflect those topics, but they have these dark moments of connection where they say just one thing about it and both understand without even saying anything.
Given the serious subject matter, those moments of levity are a hard tightrope to walk. Early in the film, there’s almost a bait and switch about the school shooting, where Lumi sends a 911 text to Vada but it turns out to be about her period. What was your approach to these moments, and making sure you don’t make it seem like you’re making light of the situation?
MP: It was a tricky line to walk. My editor, Jenny Lee, and I thought about it a lot in the edit. I wanted to feel like it was going to be another kind of teen movie in the beginning and not have people see it coming. But also, grief isn’t linear, and the journey to healing isn’t always just fucking laying in your bed and crying, you know?
So it was important to me that we showed the guilt that Vada feels after these moments of levity, or when she rebels. That’s how people really react, and hopefully, you eventually push past that and move to a different phase of healing. The film was about exploring all those phases.
The timing of the release is grimly interesting, considering that last year, paradoxically, had the fewest number of school shootings in years. But also, that’s because of COVID, which an even more all-encompassing, silent trauma that people of all ages are experiencing.
MP: It does weirdly tie into the film, the idea of isolation and trauma and how each person deals with something that’s at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Especially how this has rocked young people’s lives. I think more people than ever will relate to The Fallout, which is interesting. It’s sad that the only reason we haven’t had as many school shootings is because of COVID. That was a weird silver lining, I guess you could call it. But unfortunately, as we’ve seen, gun violence continues to prevail in other capacities. As schools start back up, it’ll be interesting to see what happens. I hope it doesn’t go back to the norm.
Same here, especially as we’re all reeling from the tragic mass shooting in Atlanta last week. How has that been hitting you, especially in the context of the film you’re putting out?
MP: What hits me is how numb we are to it now. I’m not easily shocked anymore by some of these things, and that’s really dark when you step back and think about it. It’s devastating and horrifying every single time. It makes me sick to my stomach. But I don’t know how much shock there is anymore. And that’s scary.
The Fallout had its world premiere at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival where it won the Narrative Feature Competition prize and the Brightcove Illumination Award.